“I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work… My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. “ (Galatians 2:19-21)
There’s a real honesty here. When you get into that business of being a “performance-Christian” you act as if the world really was a stage and you’re performing before God and before other people. But the God who made you isn’t applauding. In a hilarious passage (in Matthew 6), Jesus rolls his eyes at people who arrange a trumpet fanfare when they give to the poor (“Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” ). Or they pray loud and long in front of the microphone ( “All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?”)
God is not impressed.
There’s a poignant vignette that Jesus gives us to illustrate the point (in Luke 18: 9-14):
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
Did you see it? What impresses God is when you don’t try to impress God. Anything else is just showing-off.
The Pharisee did everything right. As someone said, he had a heart for religion but his religion had no heart. He stood centre-stage (where everyone could hear and see properly) and ran through a precis of his good points. He fasted twice a week. He tithed everything that he possessed.
Now there is nothing wrong with fasting more than once a week, and there certainly is nothing wrong with giving -as he did- a double tithe. But the problem was, this man thought then what a lot of people think today–he thought his goodness gained him special merit points with God.
I guess that, if we’re honest, we all secretly list the stuff that we do that we consider is bound to make God sit up and take notice. A sort of spiritual CV.
But what impresses God is when you don’t try to impress God.
The clue in the story is that little pronoun “I” which appears five times.He was stoned on the drug of self. He suffered from two problems: inflation and deflation. He had an inflated view of who he was, and a deflated view of who God was.
C. S. Lewis once said, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.”
This Pharisee had fooled himself about himself. He says, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men.” But he was like other men. Because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
This man was even fooled about his prayer. For v.11 says, he “stood and prayed thus with himself.” The Greek language literally says, “to himself.” When you approach God with pride, you wind up talking to yourself. Someone said, “The only person God sends away empty is the person full of himself.”
Now the contrast that Jesus gives would have been easily recognized to those hearing this parable. A tax collector was as different from a Pharisee as the Pope is from a pimp. This man no doubt was a liar, a cheat, a traitor, a swindler, and a reprobate. But now the story takes a strange twist. The Pharisee tried to impress God, but he didn’t. The tax collector did impress God without even trying. Because now we see what really impresses God.
Humility impresses God. This tax collector was as humble as the Pharisee was proud. You could see it in his feet. V.13 says, “And the tax collector, standing afar off,”Where the Pharisee went to the centre of the court of the Jews and stood in the sunshine, the tax collector stood on the outer edges of the court of the Gentiles in the shadows.
You could see it in his eyes. We go on to read that he “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven.” The Pharisee was too proud to look up; the tax collector was too ashamed to look up.
You could see it in his hands. For we read, “he beat his breast.” In effect he was saying, “I know I have a filthy heart.”
You could hear it in his voice. For he says, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Well, God heard his prayer, for Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (v.14) Why? “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34)
So what is God saying?
First of all, that it is not how you see you, but how God sees you that matters.
Secondly, when you see God the way you should see God, then you will see you the way you really are.
Finally, mercy is not what God pays you because you tell Him you have earned it. It is what God gives you when you admit to Him that you need it.
And the mercy of God is Christ on the cross, Christ risen from the dead, Christ living in me by His Spirit.
“I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work… My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.
Christ lives in me. “